Looks can be deceiving. The austere presentation of works by Ayanah Moor at Georgia State University’s Welch School Galleries, on view through April 11, belies the artist’s multilayered meditation on race. Moor, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is a visiting artist this semester at GSU, where she is teaching the class “An Aesthetics of Hip-Hop.” Moor isn’t heavy-handed. She raises many provocative questions but doesn’t presume to have the answers. And that’s a good thing.
The show contains a mere four works: three looping video projections, one to two minutes long, and a short text piece on a wall-mounted light box. It’s rare that such a stripped-down group of works is packed with so much thought-provoking content.
The light box text, “Things are looking blacker but black is looking whiter,” comes from the song “Youlogy” by Seattle hip-hop collective Shabazz Palaces. It sets the stage for the videos, but it offers no clear reading or opinion. As with Moor’s work in general, it is imbued with meaning even as it frustrates our ability to draw conclusions about the message or the messenger.
Filmed in Pittsburgh in 2007, each video shows a white rapper directly addressing the camera. They are first encountered without sound, which focuses attention on their gestures and mannerisms. What assumptions do viewers make based on those alone? Do their words, in this context, actually matter? That the videos may be viewed without sound would imply that they don’t. The performers’ rhythmic rhyming can be heard on a set of headphones near each work.
Moor is interested in the way people perceive her work. Instead of dwelling on the rappers’ lyrics, for example, “the viewer ends up interrogating what my relationship is to the performers.” But she maintains that knowing her relationship to them — they are her friends — is not germane. “I’m interested in them because I met them in spaces occupied primarily by people of color,” Moor explains, “and they have credibility there.” But, depending on the background and experience of each viewer, “the assumption is often that I’m making fun of them,” she says.
When I asked Moor whether she had given the rappers any directive or theme for their rhymes, she replied, “Hell, no. They are performers, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m working on this project, you wanna rhyme?’ I’m interested in the voice but not necessarily my voice.”
Although it’s much easier for the viewer to talk about black culture operating in this work, Moor sees her artwork as “a way to talk about whiteness, the politics and hypervisibility of whiteness.” By presenting these performers, she seeks to challenge the viewer to think about why we perceive them the way we do, whatever that perception may be.
A common thread through much of her work is her use of appropriation: music videos, texts and, in this case, the white rappers’ performances. But she states that, if the viewer considers their performances to be a “theft” or co-opting of black culture, then “there are a lot of assumptions being made about their backgrounds and who they are.”
Moor likes to complicate racial stereotypes. “What I find curious is our willingness to mark blackness in certain gestures or expressions,” she says. “If one is quick to say that these gestures are representing black culture, then me as an artist using 10-dollar words is representing what culture?” The implication would be “white.”
Remember the outrage over Joe Biden’s comment about his then-opponent Barack Obama: “the first mainstream African-American who’s articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” When adjectives that are usually taken as compliments come across as racist, things are clearly not what they seem.
Heady stuff. Moor says that her primary concern is being part of the discourse of art, not promoting a social agenda. She laments that, as with many artists who tackle social issues, formal consideration of her work is often slighted. For example, with the image on the light box — a Duratrans of a silk screen on craft paper — she places a lot of emphasis on the layering of white over brown. She shot her videos in black and white because it lends a more classic look and she didn’t want them to resemble reality-TV confessionals (though the black-white dichotomy is hard to ignore).
Moor’s art-historical influences are diverse. She cites Adrian Piper’s 1981 drawing “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” as one of her favorite artworks because its use of language complicates a reading of the light-skinned black woman’s visage. Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” of 1965 — comprising a chair, a photograph of the chair and a dictionary definition of “chair” — is important to her because it disrupts our “really fixed ideas about what things mean.”
Moor and I met at Victory Sandwich Bar to discuss her show. While in line for our Jack-and-Coke slushies, it seemed apropos that I stood behind a young blond woman with tricked-out fingernails, ornamentation long favored at nail salons frequented by black women. That made me think of Justin Bieber, who in an attempt to shed his wholesome teen-idol identity has adopted the hip-hop “sagging” style, wearing his trousers at bad-boy butt height. Then there’s Eminem and Condoleezza Rice. Are their accomplishments diminished or enhanced by their blurring of stereotypes? And what does it mean for me, a white woman, to write about Moor’s show? Would a black woman’s review be more “valid”?
“People don’t have to walk away with all this stuff I’m thinking about,” says Moor, but she does intend to provoke critical thinking about who owns what, “and maybe that’s enough.”